Amid growing concern that New York’s cocaine supply has become laced with deadly amounts of fentanyl, questions have arisen about the true risk to the city’s drug users.
Over the last several weeks, a number of New Yorkers have posted messages to social media, warning clubbers and party goers that friends, or people they have heard about, have died after taking cocaine containing the incredibly potent opioid fentanyl.
The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said New York Police Department data from April showed 8 percent of seized cocaine samples contained traces of fentanyl, a rise from around 2 percent just two years ago.
NYC Health indicated that a 17 percent rise in drug overdoses involving cocaine and fentanyl without heroin, from 157 to 183 people between 2018 and 2019, mainly in the Bronx, was a reflection of a rising problem with contaminated cocaine.
Drug users in New York—and indeed anywhere—need to be vigilant about who they are buying from, and should try to test their drugs before taking them. However, one expert who spoke to VICE World News said it was important to stick to the facts instead of scaremongering – and that cocaine containing trace amounts of fentanyl is unlikely to reach certain demographics of drug users.
“Cocaine is not being deliberately laced with fentanyl by suppliers, because it makes no sense,” said Professor Daniel Ciccarone, a University of San Francisco faculty member and a leading authority on the spread of fentanyl in US drug markets.
Ciccarone said that, instead, cocaine in New York and other parts of the US is being contaminated by potentially minute amounts of fentanyl, most commonly at the bottom end of the drug food chain.
“We are seeing traces of fentanyl in cocaine that has been accidentally contaminated at the lower end of the drug market, typically among people who are buying dime bags of coke to go along with their heroin, or who are taking cocaine and heroin as a speedball,” Ciccarone explained.
This distinction is important, as it explains which demographics are most likely to be affected by fentanyl-laced coke. “Cocaine goes to two separate markets,” said Ciccarone. “The people overdosing with cocaine and fentanyl in their bodies are not your average wealthier coke snorter. Professionals who go to bars and festivals are usually served by dealers who are unlikely to sell heroin, so they will have little contact with fentanyl. Then you have the other stream, where dealers will be bagging up cocaine and also fentanyl and heroin on tables, using blenders and cutting equipment and not cleaning it afterwards.”
Ciccarone said that even though some cocaine samples seized by the NYPD were testing positive for fentanyl, this did not necessarily mean these trace amounts would have any impact on people’s bodies.
“Yes, fentanyl is contaminating small amounts of cocaine. But what we don’t know is how many of these samples have meaningful levels of contamination in a way that will affect the human body,” he said. “Crime lab tests, and even the fentanyl test strips people can buy, can detect fentanyl in nanograms – one billionth of a gram, levels that are millions of times smaller than even medical doses of fentanyl.”
Since around 2017, health officials across the U.S., including NYC Health, have used overdose data from people who died with cocaine and fentanyl in their system as an indicator that those people had taken cocaine containing lethal quantities of fentanyl. Backed by this data, NYC Health has issued public health warnings, including one that said cocaine users in the city were at “exceptionally high risk of overdose” from fentanyl-laced cocaine.
This is “disingenuous”, according to Ciccarone, who explained that rather than taking fentanyl-laced cocaine, a more likely scenario is that these drug users had used cocaine, and heroin cut with fentanyl, as separate highs, or combined them in the same hit to make a speedball.
Alongside fentanyl’s damaging incursion into America’s heroin market—prompted by Mexican cartel bosses deciding to ditch the dealer adage to “never kill your customer”, in order to produce and distribute the much cheaper and easier to make drug—there has been a persistent narrative, spread by America’s most senior drug health experts and the White House, that fentanyl is also being laced into recreational drugs such as cocaine, weed, MDMA or meth.
In 2019, a VICE World News investigation found no evidence that drug organisations were mixing fentanyl into non-opioid drugs. To date, police have never found supply level quantities of any recreational drug deliberately laced with fentanyl.
But as the seizure data from NYC and other parts of America shows, fentanyl, even if in minuscule amounts, is sneaking into the cocaine supply—it’s just not as widespread as authorities and social media users are making out.
As has always been the case, the threat posed by tainted drugs disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged people in society.
Studies show that there have been small, sporadic outbreaks of crack and powder cocaine contaminated with fentanyl, largely affecting a specific, highly-vulnerable subset of users, in Philadelphia, Connecticut, San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta and Ohio.
And it is at street level where most fentanyl overdoses have occurred in America, with opioid drug overdoses closely linked to economic inequality, more likely to impact ethnic minorities and people suffering long term addiction and homelessness, while deaths from fentanyl have spiked in “economically beaten-down” communities. Drug policing is also more intensive in poor communities, and much of the cocaine tested in the NYPD’s lab will come from drug squads busting “low hanging fruit” corner dealers in these areas.
If New York’s cocaine is indeed as awash with fentanyl as some are claiming, with an estimated 250,000 cocaine users in the city, you would expect to see an epidemic of fentanyl overdoses among coke snorters from Wall Street to Williamsburg. Yet there is no evidence of this. No front page stories depicting photos of sons and daughters whose lives have been cut short after taking fentanyl-laced cocaine at a party. In reality, those dying from fentanyl-laced coke will most likely be the people whose deaths from drugs go unmentioned in the media.
NYC Health was contacted for comment but is yet to respond.